I have toyed around with different ways of sharing the bits and pieces of pop culture that I find. I'll often post them on Facebook & Twitter, I tried doing The Bullet Lists here on my site and on Bookwitty. But after subscribing to a few excellent TinyLetter newsletters I realized that would be a good home for the kind of recommendations I make.
Just three quick recommendations this week.
First off, if you have missed Jon Stewart — and I'm sure you have — you need to watch this hour and sixteen minutes where he comments on everything from Trump to Clinton in conversation with David Axelrod. He's cool, detached, resigned to some extent but passionate as ever about the subjects. His time on his New Jersey farm has served him well in terms of serenity. He speaks at length about his political activism (which has largely been executed away from the public eye).
Secondly, check out this half-hour episode of VICE on HBO featuring Edward Snowden talking about the state of the surveillance industry. It is absolutely chilling (even if you've heard him speak about it before in CitizenFour or in interviews such as the one with John Oliver). It'll leave you itching to throw away every electronic device you own.
And finally, and possibly most importantly, please seek out 'Everything is Copy' a moving portrait of Nora Ephron directed by her son Jacob Bernstein. I'm ashamed to say I didn't know much about her beyond the fact that she basically created the romantic comedy genre at the movies and passed away in 2012. This portrait of Ephron, told through the voices of those who knew her best (friends, family, ex-husbands), reveals a titan of creativity, an aggressively public person who revolutionized the essayistic form and ended her life with a final act of defiance, choosing a very private death. She is absolutely spell-binding to watch in interviews, I don't think I have ever listened to someone as captivating. Please seek out this great documentary.
Let me just start by saying that this is a truly phenomenal piece of writing. Anna Wiener, who has written for The Atlantic, New Republic, The Paris Review and Vice, is a beautiful voice in the current prose landscape. Her n+1 week that has been doing the rounds since it was published online has earned comparisons to Bret Easton Ellis. 'Uncanny Valley' is ostensibly a memoir piece about working in the man-child-on-steroids universe of a Silicon Valley startup but it ends up saying a lot about where we are as a society. If you read one thing this week, make it this.
The Common, published out of Amherst College, has just put out its eleventh issue is and it features a lot of great writing by Arab authors in translation. I picked out a piece by Kuwait's Estabraq Ahmad who is a graduate of the University of Iowa International Writing Program. Her short story collections include The Darkness of the Light, for which she won the Laila al-Othman Prize; Throwing Winter High, for which she was won a state encouragement award; The Things Standing in Room 9; and Give Me 9 Words. She is the producer of the radio show The Cultural Café.
Yes, fitness clubs can be dehumanizing orgies of exhibitionism and self-regard. But intellectual scorn for exercise misunderstands why we work out.
"If the thinking classes were once skeptical of these wellness pursuits as woo-woo and anti-intellectual, their marginal status during the 1960s and ’70s at least bestowed a measure of countercultural legitimacy. Then, in the 1980s and ’90s, the language of well-being was commercialized by a booming fascination with fitness and an array of products and experiences to satisfy it. Cue Christopher Lasch’s persuasive admonition that affluent America was devolving into a sinkhole of narcissistic navel-gazing (sculpt those abs!).
Now that luxury mind-body spas and juice bars are familiar totems of gentrification, and Fortune 500 corporations roll out "McMindfulness" seminars and on-site wellness centers, engaging in such practices can feel like an endorsement of a superficial, bourgeois mainstream — a mainstream against which many intellectuals define themselves."
From New York to London to Tokyo, anyone who has lived in a large metropolis can attest to the eerie and inexplicable feeling of experiencing utter loneliness in the midst of some of the most populated and vibrant urban centers in the world. Rachel Syme's great review of Olivia Laing's 'The Lonely City' is an interesting place to start thinking about what is at the origin of this odd feeling.
Tip for Reading Longform Articles: If you've got a Kindle, get an Instapaper account, put a "Send to Kindle" bookmark in your bookmark bar and every time you're on something that's a bit long-ish to read on a phone or desktop click the bookmark. You'll automatically get the article in your Kindle library in the right format. You'll find yourself reading more stuff in no time.
If you've been a sentient being at some point since 2008, it is pretty much impossible to not have crossed paths with the Marvel Cinematic Universe at some point in your audiovisual life. I've never been a massive fan of comic books, aside from a stint in the mid-nineties when I collected them from a store in Westboro Ottawa, but Marvel have been doing a great job of pulling in the skeptics. While I've never connected with the films (I've seen bits of pieces of the Iron Mans, fell asleep in Avengers, have no idea why Thor even exists or what accent Hemsworth is trying to do, but loved Ant-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy), I've fallen hard for the franchises Netflix output. Jessica Jones got me hooked, more for its noir pedigree than its superhero stuff, and now I'm popping episodes of Daredevil like its Advil and I'm 33 and hungover (which, incidentally, I might just be). The world-building is truly something phenomenal, and while it is certainly dark and excessively violent, there is something very soft at the center of the show. I'm now on the second season, and four episodes in it is looking amazing. Oh and Jon Bernthal as The Punisher is one of the best bits of casting on TV in about a decade.
Given that I essentially consume all my "TV" culture through Netflix, BBC iPlayer and YouTube at this point, I've decided to go on a subscription binge, to make sure my feed includes something more substantial that Buzzfeed "Old People Try Pepsi From Japan" videos and Jimmy Kimmel pranks. One channel I've recently started following is the excellent Nerdwriter. Created and run by Evan Puschak, The Nerdwriter is a weekly web series that aims to cultivate worldview. Puschak, a former film student, covers a wide variety of topics through the prism of pop culture, from The Diderot Effect to Free Will and Reddit to Kintsugi. His series “Understanding Art” takes deep dives into specific cultural artifacts, my favourites being the ones that have to do with films.
Whether you get it through Spotify, Pandora, Apple Music or any other of the hundreds of platforms, music discovery is something we all do with various degrees of passivity or activity. In comes Radioooo, with its silly name and fun interface. The premise is easy: select a country, select a decade and start enjoying some hitherto unknown tunes. There's something about it that reminds me of using Encarta '95. A sort of limited guided exploration that we've lost with the web and its endless rabbit holes.
Eye In The Sky
Ostensibly about a single drone strike in Kenya involving Al Shabab militants, this film is actually a very important look at the wider state of contemporary warfare. Featuring chinless bureaucrats and politicians (who wouldn't be out of place on The Thick of It), bellicose and detached military brass, plenty of collateral damage in distant countries, it forces a long hard look at the way war is waged. I'm not sure how much of it is factually accurate, in terms of both the technology and the legal nitpicking that goes on in order to estimate how many kids are OK as collateral damage, but even if that accuracy is 45% (a number you'll understand the significance of if you want it) it is still a terrifying insight into the events behind the column inches in The Guardian that we try to make sense of. It is solidly acted, with the always brilliant Helen Mirren at its heartless core and the sorely missed Alan Rickman bringing a rickmanesque quality to proceedings.
Based on John Lanchester's eponymous novel, this three-part BBC mini-series from the makers of Broadchurch is a masterful look at early 21st century London. The story — ostensibly about a series of mysterious postcards the residents of Pepys Road start receiving — takes on a lot: from gentrification and rising property prices, to the state of contemporary art, to issues around Islamaphobia, to upper middle class performance anxiety, to the expansion of the working classes with arrivals from Zimbabwe, Poland and Hungary. It's a lot of narrative to shove into one street in South London suburbia, but it works somehow. Toby Jones is masterful as a vile banker falling apart at the seams, as is Gemma Jones as Petunia Howe, one of the streets sole surviving residents from the financially modest 60s.
Staying with themes of financial excess, Showtime's Billions is a treat. In an age of prestige television where every show is positioning itself as worthy of some sort of deeper analysis, this show is gloriously soapy and revels in that soapiness. My friend Karim Safieddine (founder of video on demand platform Cinemoz) was the first to bring this to my attention, pointing out rightly that this is a show that has no aspirations to enter the canon or become a staple of high-brow popular culture. It just wants to entertain the hell out of you. Damien Lewis is very Damien Lewis-y as slimey hedge fund 9-11-profiteer Bobby Axelrod. His nememis Chuck Rhoades is played gleefully by Paul Giamatti chewing up the scenery.
American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson
Anyone who was alive and had access to a TV in 1994 remembers everything about the OJ Simpson trial. It was such an all-American story involving murder, Los Angeles, a fallen NFL hero, a Ford Bronco, televised courtroom hearings, and a tense racial narrative. Two decades later, the case is the subject of an anthology series on FX. The casting choices feel odd initially. Travolta's eyebrows are distracting, Cuba Gooding Jr seems to be overacting as OJ, and David Schwimmer plays a perpetually-confused Robert Kardashian. Everyone looks a bit familiar and not familiar at all, so there's an uncanny valley quality to the first episode. But as you go along, that kind of blends into the background and you're left with a well-told story that is revisited with an attention to contemporary context in the aftermath of Fergusson. The celebrity culture stuff is occasionally on the nose (such as with Kardashian's lunchtime chat with his daughters Kim and Khloe — yes, the ones you're thinking of) but overall it's an engrossing courtroom drama.
Big Black Delta
Big Black Delta is the solo project of Mellowdrone vocalist/bassist Jonathan Bates. Bates launched the project in 2010 after becoming frustrated with the logistics of a band. His self-titled debut album, Big Black Delta was released on his own label and inspired by the Blade Runner and Solaris soundtracks apparently.
British television is a notoriously singular beast, leaving mass appeal and the ability to translate with foreign audiences to the Americans, British shows tend to go for the quirky and the specific. This often means they end up being absolutely brilliant, if slightly bewildering to non-UK audiences.
British television also tends to be less bound by decade-long deals, and in the case of BBC shows completely unbound from the need for commercial success. This translates into shows that can have very limited runs. Quality over quantity is the rule. That’s how something as wildly successful and game changing as the Office can have a two-season run. Only 12 episodes of Fawlty Towers exist in the universe. Shows like Black Mirror or Sherlock have three episode seasons.
This list is by no means exhaustive. Think of it as a primer. A toe dipped in the proverbial pool.
The Thick of It
I recently met someone who worked for a UK government minister at a wedding. We were having a few drinks and I asked him if his work was anything like the Thick of It. He burst out laughing and said “Pretty much exactly. I feel it’s a documentary sometimes”. Armando Iannucci’s biting comedy about the often ludicrous and incompetent inner workings of UK politics is one of the best pieces of culture to ever be produced. The writing is sharp enough to give you a nasty cut, and foul-mouthed spin-doctor Malcom Tucker has gone down in history as one of the best bad guys in fiction.
“Self-facilitating media node” and utter wanker Nathan Barley predicted the Shoreditch hipster 10 years before he became a ubiquitous reality. The show is odd, bleak and strangely colorless, and was created by the brilliant cultural critic and writer Charlie Brooker and Chris Moris (who made the fantastic Four Lions). The cast features stalwarts of a specific generation of British comedians and actors: Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowrd), Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt (The Mighty Boosh), Ben Wishaw (Spectre) and even Benedict Cumberbatch. It won't be to everybody's taste, but if you connect with the show, you'll appreciate it as prophecy.
Set in the eponymous bookshop and featuring two of my favourite stand-up comedians, Bill Bailey and Dylan Moran. Moran plays Bernard Black, the unusually sour and spiteful shopkeeper who appears to hate everyone who dares bring him any business. He is essentially a misanthrope (in the great tradition of Basil Fawlty) who despises everyone he has to interact with, except Fran (Tamsin Greig) and to a lesser degree Manny, who both haplessly trying to turn him into someone slightly more agreeable.
The show has been on the air since 2003, and has cemented Stephen Fry's position as a British pop culture National Treasure. If you're unfamiliar with him, think of Fry as the avuncular erudite uncle everyone wishes they had. In terms of format, it is essentially a panel comedy show, of which there are so many on UK television it feels like they are powering the country's economy. But it differs in that its subject matter stays away from current affairs and celebrity, preferring to traffic in quite interesting — hence the name — general knowledge (with a predilection for debunking commonly held myths). Every episode is 30 minutes of pure joy, where you'll laugh and come away with a few facts to impress your friends with over dinner.
The Graham Norton Show
You've probably already come across YouTube clips of the show featuring some of the world's biggest stars on Norton's red couch, but I'll recommend it nonetheless. Norton has been a presence in UK television for as long as I can remember, and is such an effortless interviewer. I think the main element that gives his show a considerably different dynamic to other UK and US talk shows is that all the stars come out at once and sit on the same couch. This means that these people who are essentially professional attention-seekers are all competing for attention simultaneously. This leads to really very entertaining situations. Of course the free-flowing booze helps too.
Never Mind The Buzzcocks
From its inauspicious start in 1996 to its demise last year, Never Mind The Buzzcocks was one of the funniest panel shows in Britain. Hosted by Mark Lamar, then Simon Amstel, then dozens of guest hosts until Rhod Gilbert came in to see it all fall apart, the show was relentlessly irreverent. Ostensibly a pop quiz about the pop music, it was consistently unhinged and featured many drunk, non-sensical appearances by some of the world's biggest stars. It is uniquely British in its approach to a revered industry, and reveled in taking everyone down a peg or two, much to the dismay of the occasional American guest who regularly had no clue what was going on. Pretty much all episodes are available on YouTube. I recommend that beautiful period of time when Simon Amstel hosted and Noel Fielding took over from Bill Bailey as one of the team captains.
Things I’ve already recommended: Black Mirror, Luther, The Office (or basically the British version of anything that was turned into an invariably US Show) and many others.
J.G. Ballard’s Short Stories
I just started digging into Ballard's "The Complete Short Stories: Volume 1" and it's a treat. In his opening author's note, he writes "short stories are the loose change in the treasury of fiction, easily ignored beside the wealth of novels available, an over-valued currency that often turns out to be counterfeit. At its best, in Borges, Ray Bradbury and Edgar Allan Poe, the short story is coined from precious metal, a glint of gold that will glow for ever in the deep purse of your imagination." And Ballard's short stories do not disappoint, treating — as his legendary skill — the "real future" that he sees approaching rather than the distant futures of science fiction. His '20-minutes-in-the-future' dystopian cityscapes are terrifying reminders of where we are headed, and his style is an elegant way to be scared shitless into thinking about what we're doing to our world.
If studies are to be trusted, anxiety is plaguing more people than ever before. We are taking in more information and more imagery than ever before, and much of it is negative and confrontational. So if you’re looking for some respite from your newsfeeds and whatever metropolis you happen to live in, have A Soft Murmur playing into your ears. My favorite combination is birdsong and Tibetan prayer bowls. There is an evolutionary theory that states that birds have been comforting to humans for millennia, because when birds are singing it means they’re in the trees and that no danger is approaching. Much like sailors found respite in the sight of swallows as they indicated the coast was near, playing this in a crowded city might be just the soothing presence you need.
Kendrick Lamar at The Grammys
The Grammys are often a great way to understand what the Zeitgest was three years ago. What I’m saying is, they aren’t always terribly relevant. And while Kendrick Lamar was indeed already big news three years ago, his performance at this year’s Grammys was electrifying and hyper-relevant, both thematically and artistically. It’s not that there hasn’t always been an array of compelling black voices demanding more recognition for decades now, but those voices do seem to be coalescing in the (white?) mainstream in a way that hasn’t happened in years. Hopefully this leads to changes, both cultural and systemic.
Keeping things simple this week, with four music videos you should listen to/watch at work today.
“South African producer Gervase Gordon recently signed to Hyperdub. Which makes him the label's first Gqom artist. Sort of. That scene — born in Durban and rapidly encroaching across the globe — for those not in the know, is a kind of hybrid of kwaito, skeletally minimal house, and the rollingly glacial tropes of contemporary rap and hip hop production. It's vital, energetic, unusual music; perfect for those of us who occasionally forget that music's meant to excite.
Gordon produces as Okzharp and Duemla 113 is his first EP for the South London label. Translating as "Hello 113" the title's a reference to Gordon's collaborator'sManthe Ribane's Studio113, a creative agency/studio based in Capetown. Ribane's a dancer, model, stylist, photographer and singer. Gordon's got polymathic tendencies too, so the pair are a match made in heaven. South African director Chris Saunders brought them together while shooting a film called Ghost Diamond.” — Thump.
This neo soul band made up of Odd Future members Syd the Kyd and Matt Martians, as well as Jameel Bruner, Patrick Paige, Christopher A. Smith, and Steve Lacy, continues going from strength to strength as soul & R&B continue their revival through the likes of Miguel, Frank Ocean & Janelle Monáe.
Aussie future-soul quartet Hiatus Kaiyote’s track comes from Choose Your Weapon, the band's follow-up to their 2012 Grammy-nominated debut Tawk Tomahawk. They wrote the song out of a motivation to impress Stevie Wonder, whose influence on the track is evident in the strong synth bass line and mid-song key change.
The genre-bending 19-year old Raury from Atlanta takes a stroll through his hometown neighborhood as he tells the tell of d-boys trapped in the trap.